Eastman School of Music’s Marie Rolf Reflects on “The Prismatic Debussy”
09 Oct 2012
This October, Eastman School of Music presents “The Prismatic Debussy,” a festival celebrating the 150th anniversary of the French composer’s birth.
The three-week festival will feature performances, including one of Pelléas et Mélisande by a crossover jazz ensemble, with projected illustrations by P. Craig Russell; the North American premieres of five recently-discovered songs; and a month-long exhibition of rare manuscripts by Debussy, including a full autograph of his symphonic masterpiece La mer. In an illuminating interview below, Marie Rolf – Associate Dean of Graduate Studies at Eastman, editor of the critical edition of La mer, and Artistic Director of the festival – explains how she came to love the composer’s music and discusses some of the highlights of “The Prismatic Debussy.”
Q: What first drew you to Debussy’s music?
Marie Rolf: As a young pianist, I enjoyed playing Debussy’s compositions, not only for their sonic qualities but also for tactile reasons: they felt good under the hands. But it was as a graduate student at Eastman that I first set eyes on a bona fide Debussy manuscript – his composing score of La mer in the Sibley Music Library – and this experience began for me a lifelong study of Debussy’s music. This extraordinary document was a virtual lesson in composition, revealing layers of Debussy’s thought process, often in visually beautiful ways, as he used differently colored inks and pencils in his work. As I studied the manuscript more closely, I noticed minute details that were not captured in the published orchestral score, which led to an abiding respect and advocacy for responsible editorial work. Finally, manuscript study informed and enhanced my analytical work. Debussy’s music notoriously evades traditional analysis, and he himself was an outspoken critic of stale academic conventions. Yet, it is natural for us to want to try to understand more deeply how he was able to craft such a fresh and unique compositional voice, and that is best done through serious study of the score.
Q: What is the one thing you wish more people knew about Debussy?
MR: Debussy is so often glibly pegged as an “Impressionist” composer, the sonic equivalent of Monet or Renoir. Unfortunately, this designation implies that he focused on fleeting sensations, unusual harmonies, and arresting timbres, at the expense of venerable parameters like melody, counterpoint, and form. And yet, Debussy himself claimed that, rather than renouncing melody and rhythm, his music was “nothing but melody.” His singular harmonies are nearly always by-products of his melodic lines, and he was a supremely gifted contrapuntist. Even a quick glance at his manuscripts shows a tremendous precision and attention to detail, as opposed to a “vague Impressionism.” I hope that over time people will focus less on facile descriptors of his music, and instead come to understand and more fully appreciate his sheer melodic invention, the supreme rhythmic suppleness of his lines, and the masterly way in which he combines and juxtaposes melodies.
Q: The festival’s official name is “The Prismatic Debussy.” What prompted you to give it that title?
MR: We wanted to reveal the many facets of Debussy’s work. An eclectic composer, he drew on a wide variety of experiences and influences, from literature and painting to a deep appreciation of nature and the art of other cultures. Certainly, the work of Wagner and Mussorgsky made a profound impact on him, as did the compositions of Couperin, Bach, and Chopin, not to mention those of Bizet, Chabrier, and other contemporary composers. But perhaps even more important in shaping his musical aesthetic were the poems of Baudelaire, Verlaine, and Mallarmé, and the theatrical work of Maeterlinck. The sounds and commingling of cultures at the 1889 World’s Fair, the popular tunes and shadow plays of the Parisian cafés, the rhythms of Spain, ragtime, the art of Japan, dance, sculpture – the list goes on, and it is truly a mix of “high” and “low” influences.
In “The Prismatic Debussy” we want to explore the multiple facets of this endlessly fascinating composer, and we want to do so in a kaleidoscopic way, hearing both early and late works, premiering completely unknown pieces as well as performing beloved standards, and presenting his work in fresh and innovative ways. For example, the orchestral concert will be enhanced with lavish visuals; the chamber-music concert will focus on transcriptions of Debussy compositions; the opera concert will feature comic-book artist P. Craig Russell’s illustrations for Pelléas et Mélisande and a musical arrangement of Debussy’s score for an eclectic, crossover ensemble. The day devoted to premieres of newly discovered songs will be enriched by an exchange with performers and scholars at the Royal College of Music in London and Bangor University in Wales, and the new-music concert will present works by Eastman composers that have been inspired by Debussy’s piano prelude “Des pas sur la neige” and written specifically for this event.
Q: A highlight of the festival is a month-long exhibition of a manuscript of La mer, one of Debussy’s most beloved orchestral works. What are some of the other gems that will be on exhibit in October?
MR: Several Debussy treasures are preserved in the Sibley Music Library, at the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music. The jewel in the crown is surely Debussy’s complete working draft of La mer, but the library also owns the manuscript of his transcription of a piano prelude, “Minstrels.” A clean presentation copy, it is wittily dedicated by Debussy “pour piano et Hartmann.” (Violinist Arthur Hartmann taught at Eastman from 1918, when the school was called the DKG Institute of Musical Art, to 1922, and he also played first violin in the Kilbourn Quartet, performing in George Eastman’s home on Sunday evenings. Hartmann’s correspondence with the Sibley Music Library will be on display; his letters to Debussy, edited by Samuel Hsu, Sidney Grolnic, and Mark Peters, have been published in Claude Debussy as I Knew Him, and available in paperback from the University of Rochester Press.)
Two sets of Debussy’s corrected proofs for his Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, three autograph letters, and a dedicated score of his seminal opera Pelléas et Mélisande will be on exhibit as well. In addition, the research publications and CDs of a number of Eastman faculty that relate to Debussy and his music will be available for study and purchase.
Q: What part of the festival are you most excited about sharing with the public?
MR: Of course, I am thrilled to present the music of one of the most innovative and pathbreaking composers who ever lived, but I am also eager to share the full spectrum of creativity, artistry, and scholarship present at the Eastman School of Music. In our educational community, these activities not only exist side-by-side, but mutually inform and enhance each other, and we are privileged to have the resources – multi-talented faculty and students, beautiful performance halls, and the world’s largest collegiate music library – to support such an ambitious festival. In addition, we look forward to welcoming internationally renowned guest artists and scholars to what promises to be an immensely rich musical experience for all.
The Eastman School of Music presents THE PRISMATIC DEBUSSY Oct 1–27, 2012
Sat, Oct 13 at 8pm
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Festival Gala Concert
Eastman Philharmonia; Eastman School Symphony Orchestra; Eastman Wind Ensemble; Eastman Chorale
With illustrated introductions by Eastman Professor of Music Theory Marie Rolf
Printemps (1887), Prix de Rome work for orchestra
Three transcriptions for wind ensemble:
Hommage à Rameau from Images, arr. Donald Hunsberger
Sarabande from Pour le piano, arr. Mark Scatterday
Marche écossaise, arr. Mark Scatterday
Nocturnes (1899) for orchestra and women’s chorus (critical edition by Denis Herlin)
Nuages; Fêtes; Sirènes
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien (1911) Acts IV and V (critical edition by Eiko Kasaba and Pierre Boulez)
Wed, Oct 17 at 8pm
Musica Nova performs “The Debussy Project”: new works by Eastman composers, inspired by Debussy’s piano prelude “Des pas sur la neige”
Sat, Oct 20 at 8pm
Eastman faculty and students
A “prism” chamber concert featuring non-stop, surround-sound performance, with arrangements of some of Debussy’s best-known piano music and songs
Fri, Oct 26 at 8pm
Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre
Pelléas Redux – a crossover arrangement of Debussy’s opera to accompany P. Craig Russell’s comic book Pelléas et Mélisande
Sat, Oct 27 from 9:30am to 5pm
Hatch Recital Hall
Presentations and the North American premiere of five newly discovered songs
With guest scholars Denis Herlin of the Centre National de la Recherché Scientifique and Mylène Dubiau-Feuillerac of the Université de Toulouse, and Eastman Professors of Music Theory Marie Rolf and Jonathan Dunsby
Sibley Music Library at the Eastman School of Music
An exhibit of Debussy manuscripts, including a complete working draft of La mer, and “Minstrels” arranged by Debussy for violin and piano for Arthur Hartmann